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by John LeCarre
Little Brown and Co, January 2004
400 pages
ISBN: 0316000647

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

John Le Carre made a major breakthrough when he published THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD in 1963. W. Somerset Maugham told of spying the way it was actually done in his Ashenden short stores in the 1920s, but they didn't have the impact of a novel, and they were pre-Cold War. In between Le Carre and Maugham, we had little more than schoolboy daydreams of the James Bond type. Le Carre showed how the Soviets had changed the rules of espionage forever, with Britain, the United States, and other countries necessarily following suit.

But the Cold War came to an end and espionage stories gradually came off the menu by popular demand. The post-9/11 world gave some impetus to a renaissance, but with a new direction. In ABSOLUTE FRIENDS, Le Carre takes an historical approach and addresses what he knows best for three-quarters of the book, then concludes by striking out with something new.

Le Carre knows how to develop character. We get a pretty clear picture of Teddy Mundy, the son of a ne'er-do-well major in the British Indian Army who becomes part of the new post-British army of an independent Pakistan after partition and, following some problems, later returns to England. Teddy's father is by definition a gentleman, but not very high up the gentry class. While in Pakistan, Teddy has absorbed much of the Muslim culture of Pakistan, which will remain with him all his life. In England Teddy discovers that his late mother, whom he had been brought up to believe had come from a prominent Irish family, was really of the servant class. He goes to a public school but does not graduate from a university. Everything combines to make him an in-between, not quite this, but not quite that.

He goes to study in Germany and meets Sasha, a slight-built son of a Lutheran minister whom Sasha dislikes as much as Teddy dislikes his own father. Sasha has a crippled body, a mind poisoned against authority, a leaning toward anarchism, and a guru-like position among a group of flowerchild young folk that move from squat to squat, demonstrate against the government, and exchange sexual partners without ceremony. Teddy easily falls under Sasha's spell, but they are separated when the German police rough up Teddy and expel him from the country.

In England Teddy marries and settles down. He has a job for the government traveling overseas with groups of artists paying exchange visits to Communist countries. He seems happy until he hears from Sasha, who recruits him for a Cold War role while keeping his position as a guide for exchange tours. Easily influenced, Teddy readily sees and agrees with Sasha's conviction that both sides in the Cold War are too inimical to the individual. They become double agents, working as spies for the East Germans against the British, but actually reporting everything to the British. It's never spelled out what "priceless intelligence" Sasha is supposed to have access to that Teddy turns over to the British; we are told but not shown. However, the Berlin Wall comes down and the Cold War ends. Sasha disappears. Teddy returns to England where, in the meantime, his wife has taken steps to divorce him.

The next time Teddy hears from Sasha is when the latter has a proposition that will save the world. Sasha introduces Teddy to a mysterious billionaire named Dimitri, who is at the center of the world-saving scheme. Again, the reader is not given any clear idea of what the goal is, and Teddy doesn't know either, but at least initially he accepts Sasha's entreaties.

At this point Le Carre pulls out all the stops and launches into a polemic against the United States. The tragedy that follows is of course the fault of the United States. Before that, on pp. 353-4 a disillusioned British intelligence chief refers to a "new world strategy ... called pre-emptive naivete, and it rests on the assumption that everyone in the world would like to live in Dayton, Ohio, under one god, no prizes for guessing whose god that is." On p. 356 the same British official calls the "Queen and country" the "wholly owned subsidiaries of the one great Hyperpower in the Sky." On p. 356 Sasha helps get the message across, "They are trying to put us into one bed. Liberals, socialists, Trotskyists, Communists, anarchists, anti-globalists, peace protesters: we are all sympis, all pinkos. We all hate Jews and America and we are the secret admirers of Osama." And, "Europe will go crawling to its American Big Brother, begging it to come to its protection." The grand finale that all this leads to is like the big fireworks all going off at once at program's end on the Fourth of July.

In this, make no mistake, Le Carre is condemning not just leaders pro tem, but the majority of the American people (a recent poll showed that the war in Iraq is supported by three-fifths of the American populace, not just by fringe right-wing, born-again Christians and Jews). Le Carre curiously seems to lack or ignore an understanding of history (in a minor but specific instance, he refers to a former CIA case officer as a "Boston Brahmin of Irish descent") and an ability to judge the magnitude of the wrongs of one nation compared to those of other nations (his portrayal of Muslims in this book is especially one-sided). He should take a course in the history of American constitutional law to get a more realistic background into what an American president can and cannot do. A review course in some of the great intelligence provocations throughout history might be helpful, too, paying particular attention to the equation between the value of results and the energy expenditure to get those results. In plain English, I think Le Carre is firing off a cannon ball to swat a fly, but why? What plot there is in the novel seems hyperbolically contrived to serve as a platform for Le Carre's censorious feelings.

I'd like to say more on this, but I don't think a full counter dissertation by me belongs here. Yet it is the legitimate province of the reviewer to state a disagreement with the tone and conclusion of the book being reviewed (conclusions differing from mine can be seen in reviews quoted on Amazon.com and elsewhere). Le Carre will make a lot of money with the book, and he certainly knows that it will be a best-seller in the very countries (U.S., Britain, Germany, and others) where it would be proscribed if the U.S. could and would act as it does in Le Carre's presentation of what he views as insidious American power. It is so easy to bite the hand that gives you the freedom to bite it with impunity.

Throughout the book, Le Carre uses an experimental narrative present instead of the customary narrative past, but occasionally trips over it; John Burdett does it much more smoothly in BANGKOK 8. Nonetheless, there is some good writing in the book, as we would expect from Le Carre, and I think it's worth reading, if only for exposure to a mindset held by others than just Le Carre. There are some notable phrases in it. When Le Carre mentions "robust Turkish interrogation methods," it's an interesting understatement for anyone who knows anything about Turkish interrogation methods. When he writes "He feels like the boy in the painting, waiting to be asked when he last saw his father," he does not elucidate, although most readers in any country outside England, and perhaps even inside England, would not be acquainted with the reference, which is to William F. Yeames's 1878 painting, And When Did You Last See Your Father? showing a young boy in cavalier dress standing on a stool so he can be seen by his Puritan inquisitors, who are trying to elicit from him where his father is hiding.

I wish I could have more sympathetic views toward Le Carre's latest endeavor, but I can't. I think he can't see the forest for the trees.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, December 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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